Chief Tolu Odebiyi, Chief of Staff to Governor Ibikunle Amosun of Ogun State, may be warming up to receive the baton of leadership from his boss. He is from Ogun West senatorial district. His father, Chief Jonathan Odebiyi was minority leader in the Second Republic senate, representing the defunct Unity Party of Nigeria. In 2015, his ambition to become a senator was truncated by his party the APC. He speaks with Nseobong Okon-Ekong about his governorship ambition
As the Chief of Staff to Governor Ibikunle Amosun, How early do you get to office?
I get to work at 7 O’clock every morning since I became Chief of Staff to Governor Ibikunle Amosun of Ogun State. Even when I was in Lagos, I got to work at the same time. It gives me time to assimilate a lot of things that have happened the day before and to have a clear idea of what is ahead of us before people start coming or before His Excellency comes in.
By the nature of my job, before I leave the office I try to make sure that most things have wound down. I leave office leave between 6 and 7 pm.
My role as the chief of staff is to manage His Excellency – manage his itinerary, his programmes and to oversee his immediate staff and make sure that things work seamlessly and effortlessly around him and minimise any stress. You look out for your principal. If you feel that certain things are not right, you step in.
What gives you the competence to do this?
My years of working in an executive position. I had been the MD of a real estate company. I have been the MD of Agbara Industries. I have worked in the banking sector when I first came back to the country. I have worked abroad for over 15 years. I have had global and local experience at very high level. Management, administration and oversight are definitely things that I have been able to handle effortlessly. To me, it is a matter of understanding what it is that we have to do and scheduling people in terms of priority. We have to understand the political dynamics of the environment. If you feel that granting an interview by His Excellency is not most ideal at a certain point, you find a way to pull it off.
How do you deal with politics and governance?
First of all, I was born into a political family. I am conversant with the political arena. It is also nice that you can bring in the confidence of the private sector to bear; the discipline that comes with the sector. It brings efficiency. Most important, you also have the understanding and the knowledge of the political environment. You should understand the needs and the expectations of the people to have access to you to be able to relate with you in order to reach their governor. I understand all these political dynamics very well because of my upbringing and also the nature of my job.
How old were you when your father died?
He died in 2002 in March. I am going to be 54 years in November.
Would you say you have risen to prominence in Ogun politics as a result of your political heritage?
I think it is a combination of everything. Let’s be honest with ourselves. If you have a good legacy and a good pedigree, it is bonus. Having said that, character is also important. I always tell people that you may be the smartest person but if you don’t have character, then you don’t have anything. You may be an average person, if you have exceptional character, then you have everything. For me, character is everything. I have had the opportunity to serve this government as a member of the Judiciary Service Commission for about four and a half years. I am sure the governor must have assessed my character during that time. I have also had the opportunity to run for the senate in the party. I have been an active member of this party. I have contributed enormously into the party. I am not in the party because I am seeking a position. I joined because I believe in the party. I believe there is need for transformation of this country. I think all the factors that I bring on board are responsible for my nomination as the chief of staff.
Working as a member of the Judiciary Service Commission put you among a group of people, how was it possible for him to single you out?
You will have to ask him that. The governor is an exceptional person. He is a manager of men. He knows exactly what he is looking for in terms of character. I was among people, but he has his way of asking to find out what kind of person I am. I feel that he must have seen something or he felt the need to bring me on board based on certain traits that he is looking for. I have had the opportunity to work with him and he is somebody I have respect for. I have admiration for him. I have learnt a lot from him. I can also say he is the one that really brought me into politics and I consider him to be my political mentor. He encouraged me to run for the senate, even though the party later asked me to step down. However, I continued to be involved because he is an inspirational person. You cannot work with Amosun and not be inspired.
There are four things that you will learn from him. He is a man that is extremely compassionate. He genuinely cares for the downtrodden. He genuinely cares for the masses. He definitely wants to make a difference in their lives. Sometimes, when you are going on the street and he sees something he should act on, he takes action immediately. The other day we were travelling somewhere and he saw a young boy with a lump on his neck. Nobody even saw it. He just called on the radio, ‘stop, stop.’ Somebody, get the details of that boy, get his phone number and get his mother. That is compassion. He is somebody who is also extremely passionate. He wants to transform Ogun State. He is passionate about his job. He wants Ogun State to shine and that is one thing we share in common. The third thing is that he is spiritual. He is a man of faith. Before he does anything, he takes it before God. He is guided by the principles of his faith. To me, that says a lot. Number four is that he is very hard-working.
He is a hands-on governor. One of the challenges of managing a person like him is that sometimes you feel that you are not doing enough for him. Before you get up to it, he is already doing it too. It is not for frivolity. He just wants to get the job done and you can see from the transformation that he has brought to Ogun State. I am not kidding. There is nothing that you are seeing here that he was not actively involved in.
Did you move with him from ANPP to CPC and now APC?
I was neither in ANPP nor in CPC. I was a registered member of AD but I was not active. We had the ACN that later became part of the APC. That is when I came in
What do you remember about your dad that you would say is serving you well now?
First and foremost, he was a man of integrity. He was an exceptional human being. He was highly disciplined. He was well schooled. He did the right things. I think we owe people of that generation a lot. These are the traits that I remember. He was incorruptible, neat and had exceptional good character. Those are the values that I grew up with. Growing up, you were not even aware that you had any status. If you misbehaved, you would be disciplined right there in public. I grew up with very strong values but most of all what I picked up from him is his integrity. I have maintained my integrity and I try to be very thorough in everything that I do. I say what I believe is right. I try to look at things and try to do things methodically and make sure that they are done.
You are the only son of the family. Were you pampered?
When you have an only son, you want him to be a spitting image of you. You want him to do the right thing. I went to a private boarding school. You had to be upright. You had to button up. Those little things. He wanted you to be a good representation of him. He didn’t want you to be a slacker. He wanted you to be very disciplined. He wanted you to be respectful to people. It is not that he was unnecessarily hard, just that he wanted you to be well behaved. I look back now and I thank God.
As a young person, I might think he was unnecessarily too difficult. I have five sisters. I might feel that they get away with a lot of things and I didn’t. The pressure was that of expectation. Even when I went to school, I couldn’t afford to do all the wild things other boys did. I was aware that there were consequences. I grew up carrying that burden with everything I do. Up till now, without him around, I feel the burden that I carry the name of the family and that I am the one upholding his legacy. People look at you with expectations.
I told the governor at one point that of all the people that are contesting (to become gubernatorial flagbearer of the APC in Ogun State) I carry more burden than everyone else, because my name comes with expectations. Many people remember my father when he was in the Senate and his eloquence and what he did in the senate. People are looking at me and already there is a benchmark of expectations from me that I have to perform. Add that to the expectations from my area. You have the expectation of His Excellency’s achievements. He has done excellently well. He is leaving a high benchmark that one has to exceed. By God’s grace, I have no doubt that I will do my best to continue from where the governor would have left off and we will get Ogun State to where we all hope it will be.
Many see the chief of staff as wielding a great influence on the governor. How do yiou see that?
We have been fortunate in Ogun State. We work as a team. It is a process-driven environment. The governor is the leader of the team. The deputy governor is the second leader of the team. If the governor is not around, I defer to the deputy governor for advice or guidance. To me, it is not about the position. It is to work together; to get the job done. Positions and titles are immaterial. What is important is: are we succeeding? You have a governor, who if he needs to move a table, he will move it himself. He will not wait for anybody. If you have a governor like that, how can you say you are anything? I just want to succeed. I want to do the best I can and present myself well.
Would you agree that there is a feeling of disenchantment or alienation in Ogun State?
There is no process of change without some kinds of distabilisation to the polity, in the first place. It will certainly affect some people. People have been so used to certain norms over the years. Another governor was there and everybody just ‘chopped’. At the end of the day, nothing got done. It is difficult when somebody comes and he is just making changes and you are still trying to see where you can fit in. He is not talking to you the way the former ones did. He just wants to get things done. It is taking a while, but right now everybody is commending him. There has been indolence over the years. People were paid for not doing anything. If you look at people that are talking negatively about him and you do a critical analysis of these people and where they are coming from, you will see that there is nothing that is bothering them than fear. Once you are successful, you are going to have enemies. People have been there before him, these are the same roads, they did not do anything even when oil was $100 a barrel. When Amosun came in, oil was $20, then went up to $30 and he has been able to use his financial acumen to engineer the state. He has increased the IGR from N700 million to about N6 billion. It is unheard of. That is what is unsettling some people.
The truth is that for so many years his legacies will be there for people to appreciate. He did it effortlessly, and selflessly. He has been sacrificial in everything he has done for the state.
How is your wife taking your involvement in politics?
My wife is a pharmacist. She shares my vision and my interest. I have three children – a boy and two girls. I see my son in my situation as the only boy, but times have changed. These days, your children may even point the direction you should go.
Have you kept a good relationship with the Awolowo family?
It was such an exciting moment for a young person like me to accompany my father along with Papa Awolowo, Chief Ajasin and Chief Onabanjo on campaigns. I was a teenager in the Second Republic. I remember people shouting ‘up Awo!, up Awo!’. It was exciting. When I think about it now, I did not realise it then that somehow I would be drawn to politics. You don’t realise the seed you pass to young people at an early age. Gradually, as you get older those things have to germinate. The Awolowo, the Onabanjo and the Ajasin are part of my family. When Mama Awolowo died, I was the chairman of one of the committees for the burial. When Awolowo died, my father was the chairman of the burial committee. I have a relationship with the remaining children of Papa. I am, friend of the grandchildren.
How do you relax?
I enjoy sitting down with my people in my home town or my staff to discuss whatever issue there is. I am happy when they are happy. I like to go to my hometown in Iboro. It is serene, full of trees and calm. I also like to read a good book; perhaps biographies of people that inspire me.
What book are you reading now?
The Citizen’s Book on Governance by Adekunle Osibogun